Can Socialism Be Mystical?

By Russell Arben Fox


The recent essay by Caleb Storm on mysticism as a better guide than capitalism thinking about how humanity can expand into the cosmos got me thinking—is socialism itself somewhat “mystical,” or at least is it capable of being understood so?

Storm’s examples, while not directly invoking socialist teachings, make a good supportive case, pointing out how different systems of Christian mysticism teach that we should understand “the universe as a community of which we are members, along with stars, volcanoes, slime molds, and vampire squids” as opposed to seeing “the universe as a warehouse for resources to use to accomplish our human-centered goals.” The latter obviously reflects a kind of acquisitive individualism that can’t find any home in socialist thinking, while the former emphasis upon an environmentally encompassing community fits well with much eco-socialist writing, particularly where it overlaps with deep ecology. On this reading, while mystical religious beliefs are by no means a requirement for a socialist engagement with the world, they certainly can’t hurt, and may in some cases strengthen socialist commitments.

But there is a major complication in this conclusion that has to be addressed: mystical praxis. Specifically, the fact that so much Christian mysticism (and this goes for much Hindu and Buddhist mysticism as well, though I will concentrate here on Christian mystical ideas) seems plainly anti-social, if not explicitly individualistic. To feel called by some spiritual impulse to connect oneself mystically with a higher, greater power normally seems to involve separating oneself from the rest of the word, turning away from civic concerns and towards divine ones, and generally putting one’s emphasis on the inward self, not the self which extends outward into society. Altogether, then, while Christian mysticism may arguably invite the kinds of conceptualizations of the world which would be friendly to, and perhaps outright supportive of, socialist beliefs, it could also be argued that Christian mystics themselves—and here one thinks of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, of anchorites which gave rise of much Christian monasticism, and more—wouldn’t make good socialists: they’d be too withdrawn, too disconnected, from the world of social justice to be of much help to the socialist cause. Even if there was nothing philosophically individualistic or libertarian about their way of viewing the world, doesn’t their praxis invariably, if indirectly, contribute to it?

As someone whose religious faith is not especially mystical, but finds a lot of inspiration and solace in the fundamentals of Christian mystical teachings, I can think of two ways of responding to this concern. One would be to point out that most Christian monasticism has in fact been cenobitic: that is, focused on building small devotional Christian communities, and those sort of intentional (often utopian) communities, with all their strategies for establishing and maintaining egalitarian relationships, have been tied up with the history of socialism from the beginning. But another, perhaps better response might be to reach beyond debates over practice and dig deep into mystical teachings themselves, and see whether they really do necessarily imply an anti-socialist, individualistic attitude, in terms of their most basic ideas. Such was my thinking as I worked recently through The Cloud of Unknowing.

Cloud is a 15th-century Middle English work; its author is anonymous, but was almost certainly a Cistercian Catholic monk. The short book is filled with specific advice to other penitents who wish to move beyond, as the author writes in the first chapter of the book, those stages of Christian life which he labels “common,” “servant,” and “solitary.” So it is an explicitly specialized text; the author in fact spends a whole chapter specifically discouraging anyone from sharing the book with anyone who isn’t already committed to the monastic life and ready to go beyond the traditional scripture-reading and prayer practices of the “Lectio Divina” and approach what is today called “apophatic theology,” which means the inability to intellectually capture the immensity of God with positive descriptive terms, requiring instead the contemplation of God beyond any supposed particular attributes. As the author put it in the book’s sixth chapter (using here a modern edition by Halcyon Backhouse):

Well now, naturally you may well ask: “How am I to think of God himself. And what is he?” The only answer I can give is: “I don’t know!” Your question once again draws me into that same darkness, that same cloud of unknowing in which I want you to be! For though we can, through grace, know and think about the workings of most matters, and even those of God, yet of God himself no man can think. Consequently, I would set aside everything that can be thought about and choose for my love God—whom I cannot think about! Why? For the very fact that he can be loved and not reasoned. By love he may be sought and held, but not by thought. So, although it may be good at times to consider the kindness and worthiness of God, and though it may be enlightening and part of contemplation, nevertheless in this work it should be cast aside and covered with a cloud of forgetting.

The focus on this single, controlling idea—that the true mystical contemplative will set aside all particulars, all explanations and rationalizations, all rankings and assessments and justifications, and instead will give themselves over wholly to the simple experience of God’s divine love—defines the whole short book. And the majority of its invocations of the mystical apprehension of God which it describes to its Christian readers do seem fairly monomaniacal in setting aside every other possible distraction or particularity. And yet, the actual social meaning of such focus might be surprising. Because if one is truly capable of setting aside specific, material concerns, and devote oneself to a higher sort of contemplation, then it is not just social needs that are treated as irrelevant—it is social distinctions as well.

For the author of Cloud, a true mysticism, while obviously not for everyone, is excluded from no one. Using the Biblical story of Mary and Martha, the author gives a deeply sympathetic reading of both the sisters in the story, noting the necessity in ordinary life of the “actives” who are “troubled about many things,” but setting as a higher standard those who pursue that good which does not depend upon a certain work having been performed, or a certain qualification having been met, or a certain expectation having been satisfied. Such a good has the effect of casting everyone’s participation in it, at whatever level, as something equally to be valued. In short: those who set up a higher standard than mere accomplishment in the world—which almost invariably means rewarding some people for achieving it, and punishing others for failing to do so—are able to see the whole world, and the social order within it, the way God sees it: as a gift, always available in its fulness to everyone.

I want…to refute those who say it is wrong to serve God in contemplation unless one has first made adequate provision for oneself. They quote the saying “God sends the cow, but not by the horn,” meaning “God helps those who help themselves.” This, as they well know, maligns God….For in perfect contemplation everyone is regarded equally. No man, whether relative, friend, stranger, or foe, is specially loved. All are considered friends, no one an enemy—so much so that the contemplative even reckons to describe as real and special friends those who may hurt and injure him. He is stirred in love to wish for them as much good as he would wish for his dearest friend.

Socialists well-versed in their Karl Marx will look at the above passage, and all that I’ve written earlier, and remember Marx’s condemnation of Christian socialism in The Communist Manifesto: “Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge.” Even those whose democratic socialist sensibilities are less tied to the inevitability of class struggle and revolution, and instead see the necessity of building socialist institutions democratically, through persuasion in the midst of factional pluralism, may be demur from the notion that Christian mysticism, by embracing the radicalism of an absolute leveling, and an absolute unifying, of the social order before God, reflects a socialist ideal. They might say: this is all well and good, but socialism has political enemies, those enemies must be identified and fought, and the socialists doing the fighting must be fortified! In other words, I can imagine that even the least analytical, most romantic and liberal of believers in socialist egalitarianism might be put off by the kind of comprehensive, non-distinguishable loving that the Christian mystic calls for, even if its rejection of any kind of philosophically individualistic or capitalistic premise is undeniable.

All of which is entirely defensible: I have no intention of recommending The Cloud of Unknowing, or any other similar mystical text, as a guide to socialism. My only point is simply this: that there have always been, and will always be, those whose religious impulses carry them, within Christianity or some other tradition, in a mystical, contemplative direction. The existence of such impulses should not be considered opposed to the egalitarian and empowering principles of democratic socialism; they may not be a great aid to the movement to build socialist institutions, but no one should assume them to be an enemy to it. At most, look upon it as the anonymous author of Cloud did, when speaking once again of the distinction between Mary and Martha, and recasting the words of Jesus while doing so:

Martha! Martha! Actives! Actives! Get on with your busy lives if you feel it is right and live in both parts [that of good works and spiritual meditation] with courage. But leave my contemplatives to me.


Russell Arben Fox is a longtime supporter of Democratic Socialists of America and its chapter in Wichita, KS. He teaches history, politics, and runs the University Honors program at Friends University, a small non-denominational Christian liberal arts college in Wichita.

Image credit: "In the Chapel at Bethany," Wikipedia commons